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This debut novel has made publishing news primarily because of the reports of the large amount the publisher signed for: the deal was three books for seven figures, and this was back in 2014, when Cline was 25. The movie rights for this book were sold even before then. Predictably, the press reviews of the book have been glowing. The story is of 14-year-old Evie Boyd who spends time with a group of people led by a strange and charismatic man who has sex with Evie and other girls. He seems to be ready to use violence and he manipulates people, but they also go along with what he does. Evie is independent and does not get on well with her mother, so she is ready to hang out with this group even though she knows that it could be trouble. When the summer is over she goes to boarding school as her family had planned, looking back on her summer experiences with detached curiosity. Obviously, her youth means that she doesn't have great judgment and she is in danger of getting swept into a life she can't control. But like the teenage girls in French movies of the 1960s and 1970s, Evie isn't just a victim. She is also precocious and she has a surprising capacity for coping with difficult situations and she doesn't care enough about herself and others to stay safely away. The older people don't have any more sense than she does. So this is not a story about the corruption of innocence, but rather about the way a young woman can collaborate with dark, wild forces.
This is clear enough from the first page, where Evie sees three other girls in a two page vision that reads like it was already written with a movie in mind. The girls are "otherworldly" and Evie reflects "the familiarity of the day was disturbed by the path the girls cut across the regular world. Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water." Cline signals that girls are dangerous and different from the rest of the population. The leader of the group Evie meets (the "cult" that the book publicity likes to refer to, with many allusions to Charles Manson) is called Russell. Russell is a threatening character to be sure, but the focus of the book is not on him, but on Evie and her relationship to Suzanne, who is more closely connected with the group. Evie occasionally refers to the press coverage of the events and the notoriety the group gathered, but the implication is that the media got it wrong, or at least missed the ways in which Russell's followers were not just within his power, but were genuinely attracted to him. It's not entirely clear how much perspective on the past she has when she is telling her story, but it seems that she is telling it from the perspective of middle age, even if she is putting herself in the mind of herself as a teen. There are three parts to the novel, and each starts off being narrated by this older voice. But even the sections set in 1969 are told in the voice of a person not immediately living in that time, but with some perspective on what's going on.
One of the blurbs on the book, by author Jennifer Egan, calls Cline's prose "luminous" (which itself is a hackneyed phrase only appropriate for blurbs). In fact, the writing is spare to the point of being terse. It isn't wordy; most of the time the sentences are short and conversational, conveying inner thoughts. This helps give the impression of a young person, rather than just her older self, reflecting on the earlier times. But at the same time, there's a lot of reflecting on her family and the dysfunctional communication in her family. But there are occasional moments of reflection on girls more generally, relating her own experience. Near the end of the book, she considers why the girls who stayed with Russell didn't leave. She writes, "When I was nine, I'd broken my wrist falling from a swing. The shocking crack, the blackout pain. But even then, even with my wrist swelling with a cuff of trapped blood, I insisted I was fine, that it was nothing, and my parents believed me right up until the doctor showed them the X-ray, the bones snapped clean." And so the chapter ends. It's poetic and evocative. We get a sense of the girls full of pain, completely untrustworthy, intent on their own self-destruction, caught up on larger political and social movements and manipulating people as much as they are used. There are also issues of class: Evie is from a family with money, but the people she meets have fewer choices and no family safety net. At the end, Evie can just go to the boarding school her parents had planned for her, while other girls were more stuck. Cline's writing hints at these issues without spelling it out in detail, and this makes the book intriguing. The clarity of the writing still leaves a lot of questions, pushing the reader to wonder what is going on under the surface.
Reader reviews on Amazon of The Girls are mixed and express some frustration that the book isn't all that it is cracked up to be, which isn't surprising. The writing is understated rather than being flashy, and the plot unfolds in a rather straightforward linear manner with the occasional skip backward or forward in time. Much of the appeal of the novel derives from the suggestions of the tortuous existence of girls as they emerged as their own category at the end of the 1960s, along with the freak appeal of the cult and Russell's ominous character. Both of these elements are easy pickings and don't give the impression of some major talent. But this is more than just a jailbait horror novel. There's something interesting and distinctive about the way that Cline is able to subtly play with perspective and narrative voice, making Evie both a robust personality yet at the same time leaving it elusive how much agency she had in participating in the events of the summer.
© 2016 Christian Perring
Christian Perring used to be a college professor, and is now contemplating his options.
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